I first became aware of the impact of U.S. Navy sonar exercises on whales about five years ago, when a marine biologist named Kenneth Balcomb bore stark witness to a mass stranding in the Bahamas. My book Eye of the Whale had recently been published and, while on a book tour in upper Washington State, I had a long breakfast discussion with Balcomb about what he’d seen. The organs of the dead whales, he told me, showed signs of having been literally shaken apart by the intensity of underwater sound waves in their proximity.
Balcomb’s was also a tale of initial denial of culpability by the Navy, and their attempt at a cover-up. Only his persistence eventually forced them to admit that sonar testing was the likely cause of the tragedy. I’d been writing about ocean issues – from overfishing and pollution to Japan’s illegal whaling – for a long time. Now I began to gather a burgeoning file on sonar and its potentially lethal effect on marine mammals.
So when Mother Jones Magazine asked me to write about the latest threats to our great whales, I knew I had to focus on sonar. Only a year ago, off the North Carolina coast, the largest stranding ever documented along this shoreline had occurred. And the Navy was in the midst of plans to create a new Undersea Warfare Training Range that would conduct more than 160 sonar exercises a year along this same stretch of the Atlantic.
Worse, recent legislation pushed through by the Bush Administration could give the Navy an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, basically a green light to do whatever they wanted. This needed to be exposed, too. The efforts of environmental groups in filing another suit against the Navy needed to be described. I couldn’t think of a more important ocean story to write at this time.
Read the Mother Jones Fate of the Oceans package online.